The Hustler (Blu-ray)
Directed by Robert Rossen
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 135 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 2.0 English, 5.1 Spanish; DTS 5.1 French, others
Subtitles: SDH, Spanish, French
MSRP: $ 34.98
Release Date: May 17, 2011
Review Date: May 18, 2011
Playing cocky antiheroes was Paul Newman’s forte during his first fifteen years in the movie business, and no film better illustrates his expertise with that particular persona than Robert Rossen’s The Hustler. It’s a multilevel character study of losers trying to be winners, oftentimes failing but just occasionally hitting it big even if the victory has a hollow ring to it. It’s one of the most iconic films of the 1960s and certainly one of Newman’s greatest portrayals. Its riveting performances from a truly inspired cast down to the tiniest bit player (some of whom went on to award-winning careers of their own) distinguish it today making it even more celebrated now than it was on its initial release.
“Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) makes his living hustling pool in mid-range billiard parlors across the country with his partner Charlie Burns (Myron McCormick). But Charlie thinks small and doesn’t like Eddie taking big risks. Eddie, however, seeks the challenge and thrill of vying with big-time players like Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). After being up $18,000 in a game with the uncrowned pool champion, Eddie eventually wilts under the pressure of the lengthy match and loses everything, and he abandons his partner in seeking a place of solace to lick his wounds. In a bus station he meets a lame, alcoholic woman Sarah (Piper Laurie) whom he has an instant rapport with. Helping someone in need is her reason for living, and Eddie’s worst moments are the times when she doesn’t need booze to get through the day. But Eddie can’t resist the lure of challenging Minnesota Fats once again, and with the backing of big-time gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), he manages to restore his confidence and once again challenge Fats to a match.
Among the many achievements in Robert Rossen’s triumphant movie are the intricate ways he captures the atmosphere of the pool room in all its seedy glory. It’s not a big-time Vegas showroom but rather a somewhat undistinguished parlor filled with cigarette smoke and sweat as the momentum ebbs and flows from one player to the other. The montages of the various amazing pool shots the two contenders make during their two celebrated matches are stupendous (amazingly, the editing was not Oscar-nominated though the film did earn nine nominations and two awards), and camerawork is never intrusive, not overtly showy with grand overhead shots that announce their uniqueness but instead photography that puts the viewer right among the spectators and players. Dramatically, the stories of Eddie and Sarah are both tough and tender, and one wishes even more of their relationship could have been explored. Still, the original Walter Tevis novel has been closely adhered to in the adaptation by director Rossen and Sidney Carroll.
Paul Newman fits the title character like a glove; he’s always excellent when playing characters whose egos get bruised and must be rebuilt over time before he’s ready again for another fight. Though he won the Oscar for playing Eddie Felson in the movie sequel The Color of Money, this is the performance that still resonates. Piper Laurie’s character seesaws even more unevenly through sobriety and unsteadiness, but the terrific actress meets every challenge with real honesty and a striking fierceness. George C. Scott (who earned his second Oscar nomination for his work but for the first time in his career refused the nomination) puts his indelible stamp on the conniving, brazen, and blustery Bert Gordon. The devil incarnate, Gordon and Scott were born to be paired together. Jackie Gleason makes a triumphant impression as the expert manipulator Minnesota Fats. Talented at pool but even more expert in psyching out his opponents, Gleason is perfection as the unflappable champion player. Myron McCormick as Eddie’s fatherly partner has several good early scenes, and looking deep into the cast list finds such stalwart character actors as Murray Hamilton (an especially noteworthy role as an effete Southerner), Vincent Gardenia, Michael Constantine, and former boxing champ Jake LaMotta.
The Cinemascope 2.35:1 aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The film’s grayscale features excellent contrast which brings out pure whites but only mediocre black levels. Sharpness is for the most part quite impressive, and many details can be glimpsed in close shots of the various actors. There are some minor problems with aliasing especially in one of Newman’s striped coats and in Scott’s plaid jacket. The film has been divided into 32 chapters.
The disc offers audio mixes in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. The mono is louder, but the lossless encode (with which I viewed most of the film) is surprisingly nimble with its effects. Though mostly frontcentric with its music and sound effects, big scenes taking place at the Kentucky Derby or at a post race noisy party find sounds routed throughout the soundstage in both fronts and rears without seeming or sounding artificially manufactured. Dialogue is cleanly recorded and clearly presented with no age-related hiss or other problematic artifacts.
The audio commentary is a compilation of several people either directly or indirectly connected to the movie: actor Paul Newman, editor Dede Allen, director’s Rossen’s daughter Carol, critics Richard Shickel and Jeff Young, and others. Their comments make interesting listening and occur throughout the film’s more than two hour running time.
“Paul Newman at Fox” offers a semi-biographical sketch of Paul Newman along with comments from film historians and clips from his Fox films The Hustler, The Long Hot Summer, From the Terrace, Rally Round the Flag Boys, Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man, Hombre, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Verdict. It runs 27 ¼ minutes in 1080p.
“Jackie Gleason: The Big Man” is a 12-minute tribute to Jackie Gleason presenting a modified biography of some of his career highlights with clips from Fox films Orchestra Wives, The Hustler, and Gigot. It’s in 1080p
“The Real Hustler: Walter Tevis” gives biographical information on the author of the original book and his subsequent works in this 19-minute piece in 1080p.Interviewed are his wife and two children.
All of the remaining featurettes are in 480i.
“Life in the Fast Lane: Fast Eddie Felson and the Search for Greatness” finds brief interviews with a varied group of people connected to the movie or talking about its star: Paul Newman is interviewed along with Michael Constantine, Dr. Drew Casper, Piper Laurie, and Dede Allen. This runs 11 ¾ minutes.
“Milestones in Cinema History: The Hustler” offers interviews with Paul Newman, Dr. Drew Casper, Piper Laurie, Michael Constantine, and DeDe Allen all talking about the importance of the movie. It runs 28 minutes.
“Swimming with Sharks: The Art of the Hustle” is a 9 ½-minute summary of the history of pool and pool hustlers along with how trick shots are set up and some various terms used in the world of hustlers.
“The Hustler: The Inside Story” features Richard Shickel, Jerry Orbach, and Carol Rossen discussing the movie and its aftermath in this 24 ½-minute featurette.
“Paul Newman: Hollywood’s Cool Hand” is the 43 ¾-minute episode of Biography focusing on the life and career of Paul Newman. Many interviews with him and wife Joanne Woodward along with friends and working colleagues are included in this excellent episode.
“Trick Shot Analysis” offers analysis by pool expert Mike Massey of five key shots in the movie. They can be chosen individually or shown in one 13 ¾-minute grouping.
“How to Make the Shot” has expert Mike Massey making the same five shots illustrated above in this 3 ¾-minute featurette. They can be viewed together or separately.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs 3 ¼ minutes, and the Spanish language version of this trailer is also presented.
The disc is presented in Digibook packaging with 24 pages devoted to the film’s plot and biographical tributes to Newman, Laurie, Scott, Gleason, and Rossen.
4.5/5 (not an average)
The Hustler makes a superb Blu-ray presentation with excellent picture and sound, a 24-page booklet with stills and text on the film and its stars, and a generous selection of interesting bonus material. Highly recommended!